Buying Guitars Online
Setting Realistic Expectations
Last Updated: January 9, 2019
One thing that really burns me up is seeing negative reviews left for guitars ordered online–for things that aren’t actually problems or, in some cases, are completely normal.
When putting together my recent post on really great beginner electric guitars, I read a lot of negative guitar reviews on Amazon that were totally unfounded.
That’s when a realization hit me: many people (especially beginners) have absolutely no idea what to expect of a guitar ordered online. No surprise, really, but the problem is that they’re leaving bad reviews on good guitars that usually only need some basic adjustments after the rigors of shipping.
In a perfect world, a guitar that you order online would arrive at your doorstep perfectly setup, in-tune and ready-to-play. The strings would be brand new and stretched properly, neck relief would be just right, string height would be reasonable, and the guitar would be free of any excessive fret buzz.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
The harsh reality is that guitars ordered online rarely arrive perfectly setup. If you’re extremely lucky, the guitar will simply be a bit out of tune when it arrives. However, it’s far more likely that it’ll be out-of-tune, the strings may be uncomfortably high, or so low that they’re buzzing against the frets. If it’s an electric with a floating tremolo, I can almost guarantee the tremolo won’t be balanced properly. You may even have a few loose screws here and there.
If you’re planning to buy a guitar online–especially if you’re a beginner or otherwise know very little about guitars–here’s what I hope to teach you with this article:
Using real Amazon reviews, let’s look at 6 examples of negative guitar reviews. I’ll post a screenshot of the review, and then provide my verdict (whether it’s bogus and should be ignored, or legit and should be taken seriously). I’ll also explain why I’ve decided whether it’s bogus or legit.
My Response: Bogus!
String buzz–or fret buzz–is rarely a genuine defect in a guitar ordered online. It can often be fixed (or minimized) with a few simple tweaks, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll have to take it to someone for a basic setup which will run you $40 – $60.
Even IF the guitar was setup prior to shipping (which they rarely are) the rigors of shipping, moving to a different climate, etc. can knock things out-of-whack. Giving a guitar a 1-star rating for having string buzz right off the truck is a shame, because it probably isn’t the guitar’s fault. Most guitars need a full setup regardless of whether they’ve been ordered online or bought off the wall at a guitar store.
Oh, and in case you didn’t already know: some string buzz is normal, depending on a combination of factors such as how hard you hit the string, string gauge, string brand, string height, and more.
You can ignore a negative review like this one.
My Response: Bogus!
Ugh! Here we go again. Of course you had to take it to a local shop for a setup. As I said above, a guitar that’s been through the rigors of shipping will usually need to be setup properly to sound and play its best. The real tragedy here is that this reviewer didn’t elaborate and tell us how the guitar played after the setup. Did it play beautifully and turn out to be a good guitar after all? Or, was it unfixable–thereby warranting this sad, 1-star review being here forever?
Since we’ll never know, you can ignore this negative review.
My Response: Bogus!
A 1-star review because the high E string broke? Are you kidding me? This is an unfortunate example of what happens when someone who knows absolutely nothing about guitars leaves an online review. Strings break. Heck, they sometimes break when they’re brand new and being installed for the first time. It’s maddening, but welcome to the life of a guitarist.
And don’t even get me started with the comment about how the guitar “… sounds very bad.” The reviewer obviously knows nothing about guitars, but apparently they’re able to objectively rate its tonal quality. Oh, and I’m sure her husband’s playing ability had nothing to do with the guitar sounding bad.
Ignore reviews like this one when deciding whether to buy a guitar online.
My Response: Legit!
Not only are these legit complaints, I would’ve given this guitar an even lower rating and sent it back. There’s no good excuse for a guitar to arrive with a poor paint job and flat, uncrowned frets. Frets should never be left flat on top–that’s just lazy, negligent fretwork. It’s also possible this is actually a used guitar, and a previous owner tried to do their own “fret job.”
It’s one thing for a new guitar to need a basic setup, but you shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for expensive fretwork just to get the guitar playable. Take advantage of Amazon’s generous return policy and send that sucker back to the seller in exchange for another one–one that only needs a basic setup.
Since this is a legit complaint, carefully scrutinize other reviews left on this guitar and see if it seems to be a common theme.
My Response: Legit!
A bridge coming unglued on a brand new guitar is unacceptable, and deserving of a negative review. Oh sure, there are other factors that can cause this, such as rough shipping or improper humidity in your home. However, in a brand new guitar it’s often the result of negligence (or bad quality assurance) during manufacturing. A bridge that’s properly glued-and-dried should be able to withstand being jostled around during shipping as well as some normal weather changes. A bridge coming unglued should only happen with extreme abuse, extreme old-age, or long-term exposure to weather extremes.
If you see a review about the bridge coming unglued, look carefully to see if others have experienced the same thing. If not, and the guitar also has a good number of positive reviews, you may be safe to proceed with buying that model. Obviously, if you see others with the same issue, perhaps it’s a guitar you should pass up.
My Response: Kinda Legit
Okay, this is just disgusting… assuming there’s actually blood on that low E string (I’m skeptical). However, I’m calling this one only “kinda legit” because this is a case where it’s actually the seller that deserves the 1-star review, not the guitar. Cosmetic issues like nicks, dents, and stains are all good reasons to send the guitar back to the seller, but they’re not an indication of a low quality guitar. These are the result of careless handling, not actual manufacturing or functional defects. This reviewer obviously received a guitar that was used (and abused).
In this case, I wouldn’t necessarily avoid the guitar, I’d avoid the seller. See if you can find this model being sold by someone else with a better track record. Oh, and don’t forget: leave a negative review on the seller, not the guitar.
So, the big distinction I want you to be able to make when buying a guitar online is the difference between a bad guitar and a bad seller. Also, let’s not forget the shipping company’s responsibility in all this. I mean, have you seen what they do to packages?
It’s not unusual for a guitar shipped across the country, sometimes to a completely different climate, to need some basic adjustments upon arrival. Then, after it has acclimated for awhile, it may need adjustments again. Welcome to the joys of owning a musical instrument made mostly of wood and glue. So, if your new mail-ordered guitar has some string buzz, action that’s too high, or won’t seem to stay in tune, it’s not necessarily defective, and doesn’t necessarily deserve a negative online review.
Sure, it would be great if your new axe was ready to rock right out of the box, but that’s extremely rare. It does happen, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Let me explain why.
I don’t love it, and I’m not defending it, but as I’ve said throughout this article you’re usually going to need to budget an extra $40 – $60 to have a guitar that you’ve ordered online setup properly. Unless, of course, you know someone who’ll do it for free.
If you’re ordering the guitar as a gift for a friend or loved one, don’t let them be the one to take the guitar out of the box for the very first time. I’ve read too many online reviews where the reviewer bought the guitar as a gift, and the recipient was the one who discovered that the guitar buzzed, wouldn’t stay in tune, etc. This can be an embarrassing situation for you, the gift-giver.
Instead, order the guitar at least a month in advance and have it inspected and setup prior to giving it as a gift. If it’s one of those “starter packs,” just have them repack the guitar after they’ve completed the setup. Your recipient will never know it was opened, and they’ll unbox a guitar that’s in-tune (or pretty close) and ready to rock.
When a mass produced guitar comes off the assembly line it’ll get a very quick quality inspection and maybe some basic adjustments to get it “in the ballpark” of playability before it’s shipped to a retailer (music stores, online retailers, etc). This is done by a final QA (Quality Assurance) person, and each person can have dozens and dozens of guitars lined up and waiting for them every morning. So, out of necessity, this is not a thorough, detailed setup. It’s fast and furious.
Now, this varies by manufacturer, of course. Some of the more reputable manufacturers give each guitar more attention before they’re sent to retailers, and some high-end and all custom builders do indeed give every guitar an in-depth QA inspection and precision setup before they’re shipped.
However, if you’re ordering a cheap mass-produced guitar, you can rest assured that the factory probably spent no more than 5 – 10 minutes giving it a couple basic adjustments, if any at all.
Don’t count on it, but again, it depends. Some places are better about this than others, but most of the big online retailers move so many guitars that they simply don’t have the manpower to give every guitar they sell a good setup before it goes out to you.
Even if the seller did give your guitar a thorough setup before shipping it to you, well, there’s everything that can happen to it during shipping. Getting jostled around and thrown is one thing. However, let’s not forget about climate changes. If you live in a dramatically different climate than where the guitar is coming from, it’s probably going to need some adjustment after it arrives–even if you let it acclimate for 1-2 days before opening the case (which I recommend).
If you’re planning to buy a guitar online, I hope you now have a better sense of how to judge the negative reviews you see. Some are downright bogus, and should be ignored. This is especially true on Amazon, which naturally has a bigger audience of shoppers who have little-to-no knowledge of guitars.
Lastly, when your guitar arrives, I hope you now have a better sense of what to expect–what’s normal and just needs a little TLC–and what’s truly a fault of the guitar (in which case, you should send it back and leave a negative review). Also, if it’s not truly the gutiar’s fault, be sure you leave your negative review for the SELLER and either don’t leave a review on the guitar itself or, if you do, thoroughly explain that it was the seller (or shipper’s) fault, and not the guitar itself.
Have you ever ordered a guitar online? If so, I’d love to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments section down below.
Bobby Davis is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.